But the NFT prototype we created in a one-night hackathon had some shortcomings. You couldn’t store the actual digital artwork in a blockchain; because of technical limits, records in most blockchains are too small to hold an entire image. Many people suggested that rather than trying to shoehorn the whole artwork into the blockchain, one could just include the web address of an image, or perhaps a mathematical compression of the work, and use it to reference the artwork elsewhere.
We took that shortcut because we were running out of time. Seven years later, all of today’s popular NFT platforms still use the same shortcut. This means that when someone buys an NFT, they’re not buying the actual digital artwork; they’re buying a link to it. And worse, they’re buying a link that, in many cases, lives on the website of a new start-up that’s likely to fail within a few years. Decades from now, how will anyone verify whether the linked artwork is the original?
All common NFT platforms today share some of these weaknesses. They still depend on one company staying in business to verify your art. They still depend on the old-fashioned pre-blockchain internet, where an artwork would suddenly vanish if someone forgot to renew a domain name. “Right now NFTs are built on an absolute house of cards constructed by the people selling them,” the software engineer Jonty Wareing recently wrote on Twitter.
Meanwhile, most of the start-ups and platforms used to sell NFTs today are no more innovative than any random website selling posters. Many of the works being sold as NFTs aren’t digital artworks at all; they’re just digital pictures of works created in conventional media.
But the situation gets worse. Over the past decade, the blockchain has become a refuge for people who need another place to rest their assets. For global tycoons, it’s just an alternative to parking their money in some real estate they would never visit. They can leave money in blockchain-based cryptocurrencies instead, which appreciate in value as long as people buy up bitcoin, Dogecoin, Ethereum, and the like faster than the overall supply increases. Within the tech industry, a second group of investors hopes to use blockchains to build new apps, in areas such as social media or e-commerce, that bypass Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, and other tech giants. Instead of giving a cut of their revenue to the App Store, for example, these investors want to build new lines of business in which they can keep the whole pie for themselves.
One major challenge is that the blockchain has, at present, approximately zero uses for the typical consumer. Theoretical uses abound, but no ordinary person is choosing a blockchain-based technology over its traditional counterpart. More than a decade after blockchains first caught tech geeks’ eye, not a single smartphone app that you use with friends or co-workers relies on that technology. By contrast, when the web was the same age that bitcoin is today, it had half a billion users around the world.